July 18, 2019 | 74° F

SHETH: Question on refugee admission has apparent answers

Opinions Column: Sonam Says


Since the November terrorist attacks in Paris and the March bombings in Brussels, the question of admitting refugees into the United States — particularly Syrian refugees, most of whom are Muslim and Christian — has been a hot-button issue for those in the political and public spheres. While many believe that it is our duty as Americans to provide shelter and safe haven to those coming from war-torn countries and whose homes have been destroyed, others believe that admitting refugees makes us significantly more vulnerable to “radical jihadist” attacks, because refugees, especially Muslim ones, pose “terror threats.”

So let’s break down the numbers and look at whether this is something that should be of any concern to the rational American citizen. First off, simply looking at the United States’ history of welcoming refugees from nations ripped apart by war, makes it difficult to argue that we should not do the same for Syrian refugees. Other than that, since 2001, the United States has admitted close to 860,000 refugees. Of those 860,000, a grand total of three have been convicted of conspiring to commit terror attacks on targets outside of the United States. None of those convicted were planning to execute a terrorist attack on American soil.

Yet, out of nothing more than fear and, frankly, bigoted prejudice, a significant number of federal officials and the public are paralyzed by the notion that terrorists could slip into the United States by posing as refugees. As a result, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks, Congress put an abrupt halt to the president’s initiative to resettle 10,000 refugees within our borders. More than that, opponents of refugee resettlement continue to ignore the fact that there has been no recorded instance of a terrorist slipping into the United States under the guise of a refugee in modern history — not when the U.S. accepted thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s, not when it took in 125,000 Cuban “Marielitos” in 1980 and not when it opened its doors to refugees from Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.

More importantly, the United States vetting process for refugee admission remains one of the toughest and most thorough tests in the world. For many refugees, it can take up to two years before they’re cleared for approval. This is vastly different from what occurs in Europe, where asylum-seekers are either at or already over the border, having migrated to neighboring countries like Turkey and Greece. Refugees who apply for resettlement in the U.S. are also subject to the highest level of security clearance of any other travelers. To put it in context, of the roughly 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled their country, around 2,000 — less than 1 percent — have been resettled in the United States since 2011, when the civil war broke out.

A brief summary of the process: Refugees first have to register in a United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) camp outside of Syria, and the UNHCR conducts the primary round of security clearance. It then refers some refugees who pass the first round to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Then, applicants are interviewed by a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer. Each refugee must fall under a number of criteria — be of humanitarian concern to the government, demonstrate persecution due to racial, religious, ethnic or political reasons, and be in a camp, among others — before clearing the first round. Those who pass the first stage of vetting are referred to the National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, all of whom use information obtained from refugees, their families and all potential acquaintances to verify that a refugee’s identity and motives. During the vetting process, applicants have to wait in the camp, usually for around three years, since that’s how long it takes for Syrian refugees to clear the process if they are approved. So, to put it bluntly, for an Islamic State (ISIS) operative to wait around for three years to get into the United States is ridiculously short-sighted, when they could enter much more easily using a student, business or tourist visa.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this entire debate is that despite having countless numbers and statistical evidence presented to them, opponents of refugee resettlement continue to cite “security concerns” as a reason to shut our doors to people fleeing war and terrorism. They continue to paint refugees as purposefully destroying their homes and livelihoods in order to infiltrate our borders. But Warsan Shire put it best when she said, “You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well … You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.” I know reading through the extensive details of the refugee vetting process in this column may have been exhausting for some of you. To that, I’ll say this: If you’re tired of reading about it, imagine how exhausting it is living it.

Sonam Sheth is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in economics and statistics. Her column, "Sonam Says," runs on alternate Thursdays.

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Sonam Sheth

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